Abstract: In this case, a philosophy student and vegetarian contemplates whether animal disenhancement—engineering the cognitive and physical abilities of animals so that they cannot suffer psychological and physical harms—would make factory farming more morally acceptable. He also wonders whether philosophical arguments in favor of animal disenhancement could be extended to support human disenhancement.
Case Study: Animal Disenhancement & Human Enhancement
Jonathan Jacob Leduc has been a vegetarian for over ten years. While he doesn’t believe that killing animals for food or using animals in scientific research is inherently morally wrong, he prefers to abstain from consuming meat because he objects to the current economic structures which needlessly cause animal suffering in both medical experimentation and industrial livestock and food production.
Many of Jonathan’s friends have asked him whether he would change his position given recent developments in biotechnologies which have the potential to dis-enhance the cognitive and physical abilities of animals so that they cannot suffer psychological and physical harms.
Consider, they claim, researchers who conducted studies on a certain strain of blind chickens and showed that they were less likely to experience distress in crowded conditions. Crowded conditions are the status quo in poultry and egg production in the US, which cause chickens to become aggressive and inflict harm on each other. Blind chickens, however, do not display this stress or behaviour. Thus, one can claim that, if using this strain of blind chickens for egg and poultry production means lessening animal suffering, and increasing overall animal welfare, then the poultry industry ought to do so on moral grounds.
Now, while this particular strain of blind chickens is not the product of bioengineering, it is reasonable to think that, in the near future, we may be tempted to apply methods in which biotechnologies are applied to animals to lessen their ability to feel pain or distress from so-called production diseases in factory farming and do so in a cost-effective way. For example, we may be able to genetically remove or disable the development of certain traits in animals. Or, we may be able to synthetically “build” modified living organisms without central nervous systems that can produce meat, milk, and eggs for our use. Philosophers have considered the possibility of inducing microcephaly in pigs or cows so that we can reduce their ability to suffer from psychological distress resulting from our industrial practices (Clark 1994).
Jonathan thinks animal disenhancement is a rational response to people’s concerns about animal welfare in factory farming in the context of industrial farming practices. However, the more he thinks about the possibility of applying these technologies to fundamentally change the nature of chickens, pigs, or cattle, the more he feels uneasy about the implications of such interventions. He considers whether lessening animal suffering by genetic interventions is enough to justify the exploitation of animals in these industries. As a philosophy student, Jonathan also considers how the ability to modify cognitive and physical traits in animals could be eventually applied to human beings and, more importantly, how the philosophical arguments to reduce suffering in animals might lead to undesirable outcomes if applied to human beings in the same way.
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Kass, Leon. “The Wisdom of Repugnance.” The New Republic. June 2, 1997.
Midgley, Mary. "Biotechnology and monstrosity: why we should pay attention to the “yuk factor”." Hastings Center Report 30, no. 5 (2000): 7-15.
Palmer, Clare. “Animal Disenhancement and the Non-Identity Problem: A Response to Thompson.” Nanoethics 5 (2011): 43-48.
Regan, Tom. The Case for Animal Rights. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1983.
Rollin, Bernard. The Frankenstein Syndrome: Ethical and Social Issues in the Genetic Engineering of Animals. Cambridge University Press, 1995.
Schultz-Bergin, Marcus. "Making better sense of animal disenhancement: a reply to Henschke." NanoEthics 8, no. 1 (2014): 101-109.
Singer, Peter. Animal Liberation. Revised Edition. Harper-Collins, 2002.
Thompson, Paul B. "Ethics and the genetic engineering of food animals." Journal of Agricultural and Environmental Ethics 10, no. 1 (1997): 1-23.
Thompson, Paul B. "The opposite of human enhancement: nanotechnology and the blind chicken problem." Nanoethics 2 (2008): 305-316.
 This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Award No. 1355547, Karin Ellison and Joseph Herkert, Arizona State University sub-award Co-PIs. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.
 The ethical dilemma and the example of the blind chickens are found in Thompson (2008).
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